Every Life Matters

Wow. Check this one out. Andy Meacham: ST. PETERSBURG — About 11 p.m. Sept. 12, a car struck Neil Alan Smith and threw him off his bicycle on Fourth Street N. The car didn’t stop.

Mr. Smith, who was pedaling home from his job as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack, struck his head on a light post.

He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center. He died there six days later. He was 48.

Police have not located the hit-and-run driver.

Shortly after the St. Petersburg Times announced Mr. Smith’s death on its website, a reader posted a comment stating the following: A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead.

Web editors removed the comment, deeming it an offensive and insensitive insult to a dead man’s friends and family. Though hardly unusual — check out the comments beneath stories about any recent tragedy — this one spurred the Times to make Mr. Smith the subject of this story, as a reminder that every life matters.

This much is certain about Mr. Smith: A number of people miss him.

Backstage To A Visit

Dan Barry: MADISON, Wis.

Would it be all right if the Leader of the Free World stopped by your campus for a little while?

He wants to surround himself with hordes of enthusiastic young people, toss out a few oratorical gems — as you know, he’s got the gift — and reinvigorate his anxious political party. The Secret Service has the usual security concerns, of course, but we’ll pay for any inconvenience. Interested?

The Face Of The Team, Alone

Lane DeGregory: ST. PETERSBURG — Four hours before Monday’s first pitch, as the ballplayers were filing into Tropicana Field and bartenders were tapping kegs for the fans and bloggers were betting that night — surely — the Rays would clinch a playoff spot, the man who brought Major League Baseball to Tampa Bay sat a few blocks away.

Alone.

In the back of Haslam’s bookstore.

Reading his memoir.

Vertigo

Chris Jones: Javier Bardem is listening to a doctor explain proprioception, the cosmic process that allows us to know, among other things, the location of our feet in space. He is listening to the doctor while they’re on a sailboat that has tipped nearly sideways on the blue waters off Oahu, Hawaii. In the way that the sailboat won’t tip over entirely because its rudder and centerboard know which way is up, proprio-ception makes it possible for us to do things like climb stairs in the dark; it also makes it possible for us to kick a soccer ball or walk across a high wire or wrap our toes around the nose of a surfboard. The doctor who is explaining the process to Bardem is explaining it well — he’s a respected neurologist named Dr. Tom, and he’s the captain of this ship — but it’s still hard to understand. We’re complicated machines. Proprioception involves muscle spindles, joint receptors, and Golgi tendon organs; it involves the transmission of electrical impulses via the spinocerebellar tract in mushy pockets such as Clarke’s nucleus; and like language and fear and pleasure, it involves, finally, the lobes and fissures of the cerebellum. It’s a miraculous chain of events that we don’t really think about. For most of us, it just happens, our feet and our brains working together like acrobats, and we know exactly where we are.

But for certain people, at certain times, the process can be interrupted. What was once automatic becomes manual or, worse, it vanishes altogether. The loss of proprioception can happen to the elderly through a general degradation of their infrastructure, which is why they’re prone to falls. It can happen to the seriously ill, to people who suffer, for whatever terrible reason, a short in their electrics. It can happen to drunks, which is why they can’t put one foot in front of the other. And it can happen to people on sailboats that are tipped nearly sideways on the blue waters off Oahu.

The Burden Of Work

Lane DeGregory: The call comes about 5:15 p.m. every day.

In the tidy cubicle in her Tampa office, Julie Hopson stops typing. She looks up at her co-workers filing past her desk on their way out.

Her cell keeps ringing. It’s her husband. She knows he’s been waiting all day to make this call.

“Hey, Babe,” he says when she picks up. “You coming home?”

Julie doesn’t want to go home.

She fantasizes about driving across the bridge, over the bay, past the small house she can no longer pay for, just sailing on and on, her worries fading in the rear view mirror.

But she wouldn’t want to use that much gas.

She piles papers by her purse. More work to do tonight. More overtime to earn.

“Sure,” she finally says into the phone. “I’ll be home soon.”

With Hope

Meg Laughlin: TAMPA

Most of the time, Magdala Joseph stays in the bedroom of her South Tampa apartment with the blinds closed, listening to music and reading books in French about raising a healthy baby. She is quick to tell you she knows she needs to get out, but the Haiti earthquake paralyzed her.

“Both my legs and my mind,” she says in English.

Joseph, 29, and her husband, a hospital administrator, were living just outside Port-au-Prince, near the epicenter of the quake. On the afternoon of Jan. 12 she was nursing her month-old son when the walls caved in.

“I tried to shield him, but he was knocked out of my arms,” she says.

The South Kills Another Negro

William Bradford Huie:

YOU never heard of Roosevelt Wilson. I never saw him more than twice. But Roosevelt Wilson continues to disturb me. Whenever I try to feel that I am an honest and self-assured supporter of the American Dream, Roosevelt Wilson perches on my shoulder, laughs sardonically, and reminds me that I am just another lousy compromiser; that once when I had my chance to strike a blow in defense of the Great Dream, I turned aside with the Pontius Pilates and whimpered: “What the hell can I do? ”

To understand Roosevelt Wilson you’ll have to visualize the loneliest, most insignificant human being in the world. The cipher in a social system. He never knew who his mother was. He just appeared as a nameless black brat in a cotton patch. He breathed. He grew. He chopped cotton for bread. He stole. And somebody, somewhere, labeled him Roosevelt Wilson. Think of him as a black, burr-headed creature who felt no superiority to a hound dog, and whose death would not have brought a waft of regret across any heart in America.

Past and Present

There’s a spat among Brits over the use of present tense in modern novels.

From Laura Miller in Salon:

What reasons do writers give for opting for the present tense? According to Hensher, they’ve been assured by “creative writing tutors” that it will make their writing “more vivid” and immediate. Philip Pullman — author of the bestselling series of young-adult novels “His Dark Materials” — also jumped into the fray in the pages of the Guardian, blaming an aversion to the past tense on the “timorous uncertainty” of “sensitive and artistic storytellers” afraid of the “politically dodgy” implications of seeming to know too much about their own story: “Who are we to say this happened and then that happened? Maybe it didn’t, perhaps we’re wrong, there are other points of view, truth is always provisional, knowledge is always partial, the narrator is always unreliable, and so on.”

The idea that young writers are defaulting to present-tense narration out of a failure of nerve is not new. William Gass lamented this as a trend in the New York Times Book Review in 1987. He associated the device with McInerney, too, but also with women and the first person, invoking the old saw about female writers being less forceful and sure of themselves. Like Pullman, he saw the present tense as wishy-washy and qualified, a refusal to conclusively state what happened.

Is there truth in that? Is present tense “wishy-washy and qualified” and a refusal to conclusively state what happened?